Published in the McAllen Monitor, January 6, 2024
Story and photos by Anita Westervelt
Winter is tree planting time in the Rio Grande Valley. Cooler temperatures give plants a better chance without the stress of drought and excessive summer heat.
I’ve written about many of the old standards, like mesquite, spiny and sugar hackberry, brasil, Colima and Texas ebony. Trees that flower and attract pollinators and produce fruit for birds and other wildlife.
Coma and chapote are two less familiar trees that can be important and entertaining additions to your landscape.
Coma, Sideroxylon celastrinum, also called saffron plum, is a small, slight tree 15 to 30 feet tall, but generally shorter. Side branches have sharp spines on the twig ends. Greenish-white bell-shaped flowers bloom in clusters and attract nectar insects spring, summer and fall. The flowers turn into drupes, a fleshy fruit with a single seed. The drupes are about half inch long oblongs and turn blue-black when mature. Birds and mammals eat the fruit.
It is easy to learn to identify a coma tree by the leaves. Clustered, dark green teardrop shaped leaves are shiny, smooth and feel leathery; they break cleanly if folded. Mature leaves have a slight curve, like a punctuation comma.
Older coma can push up new trees from root sprouts. I’ve been told the resulting grove is called a comal.
A second tree to consider adding to your garden is chapote, also called chapote prieto, Texas persimmon, Mexican persimmon and black persimmon; its scientific name is Diospyros texana.
Chapote It is a multi-trunked tree normally 15 to 20 feet tall and about as wide with attractive intricate branching. Its range is central and south Texas and south to Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, where trees may grow as tall as 45 feet.
This species is also a valuable wildlife plant. Like coma, chapote leaves give tell-tale signs for identification. The leaves are dark green, thin but leathery, the upper surface is glossy, the underside is covered in fine hairs. Leaves are one to two inches long; their margins roll downward. The leaf will envelope your thumb if you place the pad inside the underneath of the leaf.
Small, fragrant, nectar-rich bell-shaped flowers hang in clusters from the branch tips in spring. They attract butterflies. The fruit is a large round green berry about one inch in diameter. It ripens to nearly black in later summer.
Chapote is a larval host to gray hairstreak and Henry’s elfin butterflies and to the hypocala moth.
It is important to know that chapote is dioecious: male and female flowers are on separate plants. Fruit is only borne on female trees. Plant more than one tree to ensure fruit. Many birds and mammals eat the fruit. Another interesting attraction, the bark on mature trees peels away to reveal shades of gray, white and pink on the trunk underneath.
While both coma and chapote tolerate drought and high heat and are adaptable to many soils, as long as they are well-drained, they must be watered in well when planted and a couple of times a week thereafter for about three weeks to help them establish.